10 years since 26/11 Mumbai attacks: Effective counter-measures aside, eliminating terrorists alone can't end terrorism
Much like September 2001 attack in the case of the US, India’s homeland security was tightened to a great extent post 2008 Mumbai terror attack. The lack of a repeat event in ten years and in fact the absence of anything near a mass casualty act is a measure of success for the Indian intelligence and response agencies.
On 26 November, 2008 ten Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists, who underwent specialised training as part of Daura-e-Khas, embarked across the sea from Karachi and after change of boats on the high seas through hijacking, struck south Mumbai. In three to four days of mayhem, the ten men, acting in small teams and directed from within Pakistan, targeted iconic hotels, popular restaurants, hospitals and a famous railway terminus, resulting in death of 165 people. The unconventional entry and the meticulous planning had all the ingredients of a military operation. Physical recce by a representative was reinforced by briefings on satellite aided maps, navigation too was aided by GPS and communication and guidance were executed through Thuraya satellite phones.
26/11, as the event came to be known as, achieved the negative aim of paralysing India’s financial capital, received high decibel media hype, ended the peace process between India and Pakistan and brought the two nuclear armed neighbours to a situation where war was once again a possibility. Ten years later, is India more secure? Is there a feasibility of a repeat of a mass casualty terror attack anywhere in the country? This needs a carefully considered answer.
It is important to place a positive response at the outset. Much like September 2001 attack in the case of the US, India’s homeland security was tightened to a great extent post 2008 Mumbai terror attack. The lack of a repeat event in ten years and in fact the absence of anything near a mass casualty act is a measure of success for the Indian intelligence and response agencies. The terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008 was unprecedented in its scale and intensity betrayed gaping holes in India's intelligence network with respect to the collection and coordination of intelligence and action between various agencies of the state and union governments.
The creation of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) by an Act of Parliament was an immediate spin-off of 26/11. It acts as the Central Counter Terrorism Law Enforcement Agency. The agency is empowered to deal with terror related crimes across states without special permission from the states. The proposed National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) with jurisdiction over both intelligence and operations would have been an ideal institution but its formation has been mired in bureaucratic and political tangle. The setting up of nodal centres of deployment of the National Security Guard (NSG) to reduce response time was a timely and effective measure to execute counter terror operations in a threat scenario against point targets in India. However, these are yet limited to important metros. While in the face of persistent threats India could do more, especially in the field of intelligence and its coordination, both internally and externally, the intelligence capacity has definitely enhanced quite dramatically with many successful intelligence operations. The appointment of a Special Envoy of the Prime Minister on Counter Terrorism is also a step which has added value in all directions.
While counter measures have a measure of effectiveness, threats have only multiplied over time. Pakistan's 'friendly' terror groups which are treated as strategic assets by the ISI and the increasing footprint of religious radicalism within Pakistan has enhanced threats manifold. With large scale mass casualty attacks by terrorist organisations working internally against Pakistan, such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) the ‘friendlies’ have been attempting to execute mirror copy of those operations in India. Pathankot was one such attempt that did not succeed to the extent desired by them.
The attempt towards resurgence of terrorism in Punjab through small scale terror attacks is a dangerous portent although the feasibility of a mass movement in the state is relatively remote because of lack of popular support. However, in such circumstances terror organizations are known to attempt one or two large scale actions to create a signature image about capability notwithstanding the negative effect that it may have on the potential for spread of antipathy within the population. This is because initially they wish to demonstrate loyalty to the sponsor agencies (the ISI in this case), more than their larger goal. The feasibility of alliance between the terror groups under the sponsor flag of the ISI remains live and that could spell a reasonable danger anywhere in northern India, especially Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. The threat to military institutions and government installations remains high.
The high intensity phase of international terror witnessed with the rise of the Islamic State fortunately did not have a major impact in India in terms of recruitment or choice of targets. However, it would be a fallacy to imagine that the threat of Islamic State has evaporated. Islamic State continues to exist in Syria and also in virtual state. It has made unsuccessful efforts at establishing itself in Philippines and in Afghanistan. However, the feasibility of it carrying out a signature act in India, where it probably perceives that no strategic objectives exist for the present, does appear remote. Indian intelligence agencies however, will need to be sufficiently networked with international agencies to remain in the loop of early inputs.
Much has been written about the Rohingyas and the possibility of their recruitment for acts against India. That remains feasible although no major indicators of any such intent have emerged yet. The really high potential for big actions remains the possible employment of Kashmiri terrorists. With local terror groups gaining experience the possibility of them being tempted to take the acts of terror beyond Kashmir does exist. Except for the LTTE’s unfortunate targeting of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi there has been no suicide bombing in India outside Jammu and Kashmir. This has been extremely rare in Jammu and Kashmir too but a determined adversary hell bent on spreading mayhem could test the waters with this. With the entry of greater radical footprint in Kashmir inimical sponsors of proxy war could be tempted to use the route of radical faith and motivate an odd individual to be the pioneer of such an action. It takes only religiously endowed motivation and hatred to set up such an operation and determined terrorists with such minds are not easy to stop. Thus every effort must be made to counter this and all organisations in the counter terrorist campaign in J&K should be sensitive to this.
It is also important to remember that terror acts are always possible when determined and hate filled individuals open themselves to exploitation. That hate and divisiveness is at the root of the problem. A society devoid of this remains far safer. India needs to work harder to make its public more conscious about the roots of terror and insecurity through that direction. The public information campaign on this has been relatively weak. Terror cannot be simply defeated through the physical route of elimination of terrorists but far more through an aware and well sensitised public. There is no better time to commence undertaking such strategic sensitization than on the anniversary of 26/11 a day India must never forget from its collective conscience.
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